16 Best Banjo Songs of All Time

Dueling Banjos, the song in Deliverance, is one of the most popular and recognizable banjo songs of all time. But there are so many others. Banjo music is incomparable, with a unique tone and style all of its own.

Banjo music is mostly associated with folk and country music but it can be incorporated into many music genres. The banjo often plays second fiddle to the guitar, but there are great banjo songs that stand on their own. Most of them have topped the charts as well.

Here are the top 16 banjo songs of all time:

  1. Dueling Banjos by Arthur Smith
  2. Foggy Mountain Breakdown by Earl Scruggs
  3. Cripple Creek by Lester Flatt
  4. Old Man by The Stray Gators
  5. Bluebird by Buffalo Springfield
  6. Mountain Breakdown by Earl Scruggs  
  7. Clinch Mountain Backstep by Ralph Stanley
  8. The Great Remember (For Nancy) by Steep Canyon Rangers
  9. Rye Whiskey by Punch Brothers
  10. Thunderstruck by Steve ‘N’ Seagulls
  11. Genius in France by “Weird Al” Yankovic
  12. The Coo-Coo Bird by Clarence Ashley
  13. Summertime by Pete Seeger
  14. Pretty Polly by Dock Boggs
  15. The Air Is Getting Slippery by Primus
  16. Gallows Pole by Led Zeppelin

Read on to learn more about the best banjo songs of all time and the stories behind some of them.

Also, for an excellent banjo, take a look at our top pick, the Vangoa 5 String Banjo Remo Head Closed Solid Back with beginner Kit:

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Best Banjo Songs of All Time

There are some fascinating stories about the top banjo songs of all time. Knowing the story behind each adds more life to the song and makes them that much greater. Below, I’ll explain a bit of the background for these top banjo songs.

Dueling Banjos by Arthur Smith

best banjo songs ever

Perhaps the most popular of all banjo songs is from the scene in the movie Deliverance when an autistic teenage boy named Lonnie from South Georgia played the banjo part in the song “Dueling Banjos” opposite Ronnie Cox on guitar.

The scene goes as follows: An autistic boy named Lonnie, who happened to have a banjo, heard the guitar being played. He responded by picking up his banjo and playing back. The boy and the traveler then began their remarkable dialogue through their musical instruments.

The boy role was played by American actor Billy Redden. Local musician, Mike Addis, sat behind Redden, with his left arm in Redden’s shirt so as to do the hand movements on the banjo and make it look more convincing. Careful camera angles kept Addis out of view. Experienced banjo players know that the hand movements don’t align perfectly with the playing, however. Also, the banjo being used would never play the same sound in the recording.

The actual music was arranged and recorded by Eric Weissberg on banjo and Steve Mandel on guitar. Dueling Banjos was originally written by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith in 1954. [1]

That’s how that unforgettable scene in “Deliverance” came into being. And now, it is well-known as being the top banjo song of all time.

Foggy Mountain Breakdown by Earl Scruggs

When Warren Beatty was searching for a song that he would use for his “Bonnie and Clyde” film in 1967, he found Earl Scruggs’ “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” He felt that it was just right for the many car chase scenes that are one of the main attractions of the film.

The film was not well accepted by the moviegoers at the beginning but eventually, it picked up and became a major blockbuster. It earned Scruggs ten Oscar nominations, of which he won two. Scruggs and his partner, Lester Flatt, won the Grammy for that song the following year. Later, Scruggs got a second Grammy for the revival of the song in 2002.

Cripple Creek by Unknown

Cripple Creek was originally written for the fiddle, recorded by musicians of the 1920s. Nobody knows exactly who composed it. Later on, it became more popular as a banjo song. One of those who made this song popular in modern times is Lester Flatt on guitar and Earl Scruggs on banjo. This song is now a standard bluegrass music piece.

There is no certainty as to where the real Cripple Creek of the song is located. Some say it is in Virginia. Others say is it the one in Colorado at the time of the gold rush. Both are called Cripple Creek. This is one of the first tunes that beginning banjo players learn. [2]

Old Man by Neil Young

This song was written by Neil Young. He said he wrote it for a caretaker in a ranch that he bought in 1970. The ranch was located in a place called the Broken Arrow Ranch in Northern California.

The caretaker did not know who Neil Young was. He was perplexed as to why this young man was able to buy the large ranch when he is still so young. Actually, he asked Neil Young that same question.

The caretaker asked Neil “how could a young man like you get the money to buy the big ranch?” Neil just answered, “Well, lucky, Louis, just real lucky.” The caretaker said that that is the darnedest thing that he has ever heard. Neil bought the ranch at a sum of $350,000. That was in 1970. Apparently, Louis, the caretaker, didn’t know how famous Neil was at that time.

Louis drove Neil around the place in his old blue Jeep. Neil said he wrote this song for the caretaker realizing that his needs are the same needs of the old man. [3]

Bluebird by Buffalo Springfield

This banjo song was actually written by Stephen Stills when he was still a member of the band Buffalo Springfield. He wrote it on April 4, 1967. He sang the song as the lead vocal of the group, accompanied by Charlie Chin on Banjo and Bobby West on the electric bass. The song lasts for around 4:28 minutes. Bluebird is the fifth track of Buffalo Springfield’s album: Bluegrass Springfield Again.

Clinch Mountain Backstep by Ralph Stanley

Clinch Mountain Backstep is probably the most popular banjo song that Ralph Stanley wrote. This banjo song is an example of the crooked tunes that banjo music is known for. Most people would find it difficult to hear the crooked tune because it sounds so natural in this song. [4] The uniqueness of the fingering and sound makes Clinch Mountain Backstep one of the best songs to play on the banjo.

The Great Remember (For Nancy) by Steep Canyon Rangers

This song was written by the comedian Steve Martin for his friend, another comedian, Martin Short. Short lost his wife, Nancy, to ovarian cancer and Martin thought of writing a song to comfort his friend.

Martin discussed the song with his own wife if writing lyrics to the song will make it better. He later admitted that the mood of the song might be affected if lyrics are written on the notes. So he chose not to write the lyrics. He said it was such an emotional mood that he doesn’t want the lyrics to direct the listener away from it. [5]

Thunderstruck Cover by Steven “N” Seagulls

Thunderstruck is an original AC/DC song which is now made more popular by the banjo version of Steve ‘N’ Seagulls. This group has been covering popular metal and rock songs on the internet by playing them in bluegrass versions.

Their latest is “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC. The song was deconstructed by this band by using spoons, accordion, mandolin, and of course, the banjo. They were able to carry the hard-driving attitude of the AC/DC tune but in a bluegrass style. The video is actually pretty funny and their talent is seriously underrated.

Genius in France by “Weird Al” Yankovic

This banjo song is a tribute to the famous Frank Zappa, composer, bandleader and multi-instrumentalist. The song was approved and encouraged by the family of Frank Zappa. Dweezil, a son of Frank, even plays the guitar lick at the intro of the song. He used the same guitar that his father used in the song “I’m the Slime”. Zappa has the habit of injecting some French words into some of his songs.

The Coo-Coo Bird by Clarence Ashley

The version of Clarence Ashley is the most popular version of this banjo song. It was recorded by Ashley on Nov. 23, 1929, in Johnson City, TN. It is now permanently included in the Anthology of the American Folk Music.

Many banjo players try to imitate the way Ashley played the banjo in the Coo-Coo Bird. But they find it hard to copy the way Ashley did it. One of the reasons is perhaps the structure and the techniques that he used to play the song. They present challenges that are not seen in other banjo songs.

Pretty Polly by Dock Boggs

Pretty Polly began as a traditional English folk song made popular in the UK, Canada and in the Appalachian Region of North America. It is actually a ballad about the murder of Polly, a young woman.

The song re-emerged and became popular as a banjo song in the 1920s in the United States [7]. It was recorded by John Hammond as “Purty Polly” in 1925 and 1927. B.F. Sheldon and Dock Boggs also recorded their own versions of this song in 1927. 

The original English song tells the reason why the murderer killed Polly. However, the American versions chose to omit the intent of the murderer and dwelt on the ghost of Polly haunting him.

Bob Dylan, in his early years as a singer, also sang Pretty Polly. In fact it was the song that he used to base his later work titled “Ballad of Hollis Brown”.

Gallows Pole by Led Zeppelin

Of all Led Zeppelin songs, this is the only one that has the banjo on the lead. This is the first time that Jimmy Page actually played the banjo. He borrowed it from his bandmate, John Paul Jones.

Gallows Pole is lifted from “Gallis Pole,” an old Blues song that was made popular by Leadbelly, a folk-blues singer in the 1940s. Page got interested in making a new version when he heard Fred Gerlach, a California folk singer, sing it [8].

Robert Plant set in some fresh lyrics to the song, and John Paul Jones played on bass and mandolin. Page played the banjo and a six-string acoustic guitar, 12-string guitar and of course his electric guitar.

The basic story of the song is a man whose head is stuck on the gallows. He says to the crowd watching the proceedings: “wait until my relatives arrive.”

3 Recommended Banjos to Play These Top Banjo Songs

best banjo songs

If you are wanting to play these songs, you’ll need a good banjo. Below are 3 banjos I recommend based on their overall value. They are great for beginners as they balance excellent sound and build-quality, for an affordable price compared to more premium banjos.

1. Vangoa 5-String Banjo Beginner Kit

This Vangoa 5-String Banjo Beginner Kit uses a high-quality Remo Drum Head panel which produces a sweet tone. You can also beat the head gently to mix different tones in the banjo melodies.

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The banjo has a truss rod that you can use to adjust the string height. With this truss rod, you can choose a setting that will be most comfortable for your fingers to play. The neck of this banjo is made of Mahogany with a beautiful grain. It is hard and does not easily warp.

At a reasonable price, this banjo comes with a beginner’s kit that includes a guitar tuner, bag, picks, and pick-up strap. This banjo offers a smooth decent touch with a glossy, bright and smooth surface.

2. Deering Goodtime 5-String Banjo

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The Deering Goodtime 2 Resonator Banjo with Hard Case is a medium-priced banjo made in the U.S. This open-back banjo weighs only around six pounds which makes it easy to pack up and take with you anywhere. It is well-fretted, can be played easily, and has a nice vibrant tone.

The creator of Deering created the company because of the lack of low-priced banjos that produce high-quality sounds. This lack of affordable, yet good-sounding banjos means people will be discouraged to learn how to play the banjo. So they make great banjos at a lower, more reasonable price than many of the crazy high-priced premium banjo brands.

The neck is made of maple, slender, and has a 3-ply maple rim. It has an adjustable tailpiece and sealed geared tuners. The satin finish makes the blonde maple looks elegant. All the metal parts of the banjo are nickel-plated.

Conclusion – The Best Banjo Songs of All Time

There are so many banjo songs to choose from it is hard to pick which the best ones. Through much research and feedback from fellow musicians, I’ve compiled a list of the 16 best banjo songs of all time:

  1. Dueling Banjos by Arthur Smith
  2. Foggy Mountain Breakdown by Earl Scruggs
  3. Cripple Creek by Lester Flatt
  4. Old Man by The Stray Gators
  5. Bluebird by Buffalo Springfield
  6. Mountain Breakdown by Earl Scruggs  
  7. Clinch Mountain Backstep by Ralph Stanley
  8. The Great Remember (For Nancy) by Steep Canyon Rangers
  9. Rye Whiskey by Punch Brothers
  10. Thunderstruck by Steve ‘N’ Seagulls
  11. Genius in France by “Weird Al” Yankovic
  12. The Coo-Coo Bird by Clarence Ashley
  13. Summertime by Pete Seeger
  14. Pretty Polly by Dock Boggs
  15. The Air Is Getting Slippery by Primus
  16. Gallows Pole by Led Zeppelin

Each of these songs come with a story that adds life and meaning to them. By learning to play these songs, you keep the story and the melody alive.